NHL's Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview

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NHL's Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The regular season is finally over after a grueling six months. Now we get to see the best grind it out for another two months to reach the ultimate prize.

For the Flyers, Habs, and Bruins, the playoffs started about a week and half ago, as they ended the Rangers' last drive to make the playoffs. Especially the Flyers, who needed to win the second game at home this past weekend against the Rangers.

 

Washington vs. Montreal

Washington is the highest scoring team. They also have the best differential with goals, for and against, at a whopping plus 85.

They clinched the Southeast Division at the end of February and the President's trophy in mid-March.

A history note: No team ever has won the Cup their first year of winning the President's trophy.

The Capitals will have to shake off some rust, as haven't been exactly in game mode since the end of their 14-game winning streak. 

They are deep in talent since they acquired Milan Juricina, Joe Corvo, Matt Walker, and Eric Belanger at the trade deadline. The Capitals have been able to rotate players in and out of the lineup with injuries and resting bodies for the playoffs.

Last year they entered the playoffs the same way and almost got ousted by the Rangers. Hopefully that doesn't happen this year.

The Montreal Canadiens had their fair share of problems this entire season.

There were goaltending controversies, GM Bob Gainey resigned midway through the season, and both leading goal scorer Matt Cammalleri and Brian Gionta were out for an extended period of time. They lost Andrei Markov for three months, but were able to drive through with the help of Marc-Andre Bergeron.

Good things have happened this year for the Habs.

Despite a whole roster makeover in the summer, which saw long time Captain Saku Koivu exiled, the Habs were able to make the playoffs.

Thomas Plekanec was consistent all season long, Scott Gomez seemed to turn it on in the second half, and Gionta has been their best offensive weapon since returning from an injury.

Jaroslav Halek has been one of the best goaltenders all year and after a long duel with Carey Price, he looks to be the guy that will start in the playoffs.

Many fans wonder what took so long to name Halek the starter. Price hasn't done worse than Halek, but the team plays better in front of Halek defensively and offensively. Maybe the players lost trust in Price after last season.

 

I. What the Capitals Need To Do To Win

The Capitals don't have to change much, except not fall early in the series.

Winning the first two games at home will be crucial for the Capitals. They need to play with a sense of urgency to make it a quick series when they head to Montreal for two games.

The Capitals can easily win this series in four games if play like they did before they clinched the President's trophy.

Ovechkin needs to find his scoring touch again. He could have easily ran away with the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophy, despite playing in 72 games. It seems he has been playing with training wheels since his last suspension. Ovechkin had six goals in his final 16 games.

Mike Green needs to be smart in his zone and contribute offensively. He needs to either rush the puck or make that first pass without turning the puck over.

Nicklas Backstorm needs to keep playing at the pace he showed all season. Alexander Semin needs to keep taking advantage of Ovechkin seeing the top shut down line.

Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Thomas Fleishmann need to bring secondary scoring like they have during the season. Mike Knuble needs to be the player he's been all season with the top line.

Theodore needs to make those timely saves. The team can rack up the goals, he just needs to make those one or two saves to keep the momentum on their side.

 

II. What the Canadiens Need To Do To Win

The Habs need Jaroslav Halek to morph into Patrick Roy. Halek has been great all season and should have been named the starter a lot sooner.

Halek needs to keep the Capitals from scoring two to three goals a game. They absolutely need him to steal at least one game in Washington.

Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri both need to be on the same page offensively. The Habs don't have too many finishers on their team.

Tomas Plekanec's line will be seeing the top shut down pair or top line throughout the series, they need to find a way to out produce them.

Scott Gomez needs to turn back the clock and play like he had with the Devils. Markov and Bergeron need to start the offense, and Metroploit, and the Kostitsyn brothers need to contribute.

The Habs need to use their speed and puck skills to their advantage with the Capitals broad defense. If the Habs can draw penalties at will and keep themselves out of the box, they have a shot. The Habs are second to the Capitals for the NHL's best power-play.

I don't see this series lasting long. Capitals win in four, with at least one overtime win and one blowout.

 

New Jersey vs. Philadelphia

New Jersey saw their long time coach Jacques Lemaire, who helped transform the franchise from a Mickey Mouse Club to Stanley Cup contender, return behind their bench.

The Devils added another Atlantic Division title. Lou Lamoriello showed he had more depth in the system after another list of long time players left free agency, and Martin Brodeur had another Vezina worthy season. The team outlasted a series of early season injuries thanks to the depth mentioned above.

Oh yeah, they also traded for some guy name Ilya Kovalchuk—don't know how that one will figure into the playoff run.

Kovalchuk took some time to adjust to the new team, system, and not being the only guy on his team who can score. It took some adjusting, but Kovalchuk has been exactly what the Devils wanted. That one guy who can finish and change a game.

The Devils have never had a player of Kovalchuk's offensive stature. It does remain to be seen how he plays in the postseason, as he only has one goal in four games.

The Flyers have had a difficult season. Many figured them to be the favorites to win the Atlantic Division with the addition of Chris Pronger, the added experience of both Richards and Carter, and the young guys like Claude Giroux and James Van RymsDyke.

However, the Flyers have had terrible karma in net.

Every goaltender that's played between the pipes, except for Brian Boucher has been hurt or is out for the rest of the season.

Ray Emery was suppose to be the "man," but after a couple of injuries—the last being season ending with surgery—left the reins to Michael Leighton, who helped right the ship for the Flyers before having his own season ending injury.

Brian Boucher came back as the "guy." Boucher has never had success being the starter, especially in Philly. The Flyers hope there's a hidden level in Boucher.

 

I. What the Devils Need To Do To Win

The Devils need to be able to hold back the Flyers offense.

On Sunday, Philly had 47 shots and one goal. The Devils won't have to worry much about scoring goals on Boucher. As long as they keep up the pressure and get their shots on net and capitalize on scoring chances, they'll score their goals.

Brodeur needs to be the man he is in the regular season. It seems as though he's gotten burned out in the postseason ever since the Cup win in 2003. The Devils play Brodeur way too much at his age in the regular season.

We all remember what happened last year against Carolina where they blew a two goal lead in the last minute, to lose in overtime. Brodeur needs to stay sharp and the defense in front of him has to clean out the garbage. Brodeur will stop the first shot, almost 95 percent of the time.

Kovalchuk needs to score and score often. Kovalchuk was brought in to help the Devils win the Cup for the first time since 2003—and with Brodeur's age, this year may be their last shot. Kovalchuk needs to be the guy who can score to break a tie or tie the game.

 

Zach Parise is one of the most consistent two-way forwards in the game and will most likely see a lot of either Mike Richards or Jeff Carter. As long as Parise's line out-scores their lines, the Devil's will wrap up the series quick.

The Devils have a no name defense and they don't really have a player who can move the puck. They need to do is keep the shots low and give Marty all the support he needs.

 

II. What the Flyers Need To Do To Win

Boucher needs to turn into a No. 1 goalie. Plain and simple. If the Flyers want to advance,  Boucher must play well. He needs to keep the goals at two or three goals a game, maybe even post a shut out.

Mike Richards and Jeff Carter need to be as dynamic as their cross state rivals Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Carter needs to score those timely goals to get the momentum on the Flyers side. Richards needs to unite his team and elevate all of his teammates play.

Chris Pronger has done it, he knows what it takes to win. He's a winner with a nasty edge to him. He needs to play exactly like he did with an overachieving Oiler team in 2006 and with the Ducks in 2007.

Pronger is a difference maker in the playoffs. Always has been and always will be. That's why the Flyers traded so much for him. He needs to deliver.

The Flyers also need Scott Hartnell to stop taking stupid penalties and to score goals. Dan Carcillo will be taking plenty of them and probably get into a couple scraps here and there.

Giroux and Van Rymsdyke both need to perform and help contribute to the offense. This team will have to upset Marty somehow and get him off his game so they can get four or five goals to win a game.

I just don't see the Flyers being unified nor their goaltending holding up. Devils win in five games, with game five being a blowout of 6-0.

 

Buffalo vs. Boston

Out of the four top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins got the best possible matchup. While Buffalo doesn't exactly have the same problem scoring as the Bruins, they are, however, not known for their offense like they were the last time they made the postseason.

The Sabres season was a success for two reasons: Ryan Miller and a team with unity.

Derek Roy was the brightest offensive weapon with 69 points. Thomas Vanek lead the team with 28 goals and is a player more than capable of scoring an important goal in every game in the postseason.

Ryan Miller was the story of the season, and just going on about what he accomplished this season is a skipping record, but he'll mind as well.

Miller is one the most important players to his team in the entire league. He should definitely get some Hart consideration.

Miller is back in the postseason for the third time in five years. He's never gone less than the Conference Finals in his career. Buffalo fans must be keeping that in the back of their mind in banking any hopes of getting that far on Miller.

He's carried the team this far and it doesn't seem as though he's worn out yet.

The Bruins had one hell of a setback. They finished with 25 less points than last year.

The biggest reason, of course, is the lack of a finisher like Phil Kessel. Marc Savard didn't have a great season—health-wise or production. He needed a player with speed and the instincts of finishing. Kessel was the dynamic player as we all know.

The loss of Savard for the majority of the season and the uncertainty of his return has to be looming over the Bruins. It's doubtful Savard will even return if the Bruins were to make it past Buffalo.

Two bright sides to this season are the emergence of Tukka Raask, which gives the Bruins a valuable trade chip at the Draft with Tim Thomas and a possible lottery pick from Toronto. Also, either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin will be in a Bruins uniform next season.

 

I. What the Sabres Need To Do To Win

Buffalo has a very unified team. They get scoring from all their players. Roy, Pominville, Vanek, and Hecht all have over 20 goals. A healthy Tim Connelley will also help the Sabres advance. The Sabres have a very under-appreciated offense that plays disciplined two-way hockey.

Tyler Myers will be a Calder finalist and possibly the winner. The "mammoth" has 11 goals and 48 points in his rookie season. He's a big reason why Buffalo's defense has been as reliable as they have been.

Myers is a terrific cornerstone for the club and one player they shouldn't trade or let get away come free agency in the next couple of years. His name will be among the finalists for the Norris trophy for years to come.

Having said that, Myers has to be the man on the blue-line in the postseason. He has to shutdown Boston's top line. He has to play smart, physical and jump start the offense. Get low in the corners and not let the Bruins players skate away with the puck.

Miller, the last line of defense for the Sabres, has to be as sensational as he's been all season. We've seen what he can do in the Olympic Games in a pressure packed environment. He has to reach down and resemble Dominik Hasek to advance, not just beyond the first-round in a breeze, but beyond.

 

II. What the Bruins Need To Do To Win

The Bruins have to play smart, blue collar hockey. They cannot give the Sabres any easy scoring chances.

If they play like they did in their last matchup this past weekend, they'll have a shot of upsetting the Sabres. They need to keep the scores low and get that timely goal and hold on to any lead they get.

Raask has to continue his strong play into the postseason, if not well, that may not be a problem as Tim Thomas is a great Plan B, possibly the best out of any of the 16 teams in the playoffs.

Boston needs it's goaltending to be as great as it's been this season. They won't score many goals, so they need to keep the Bruins in every game and steal a few.

Patrice Bergeron has to be better. It's simple as that.

If the Bruins want to make it past the first round, they need Bergeron to be better offensively and defensively.

We all remember the kind of defensive risk he was in the Olympic Games. Every Canadian was singing for him to be benched. He has to be physical and play with an edge. He has to be one of the leaders for the Bruins. He has to get things going.

The Bruins need a couple other players to be better as well. Namely, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, and Michael Ryder. All three have underperformed based on the expectations that were set for them.

Ryder ended the season on a two goal game. Hopefully for Bruins fans, he'll continue such production and the kind of production that swept the Habs last year.

Chara will probably play over 25 minutes a night.

Claude Julien is going to need Chara out on the ice against the Sabres top line, power-play, and penalty kill. Chara has to be "Superman" for this club. He has to resemble the Norris trophy winner from last year, which shouldn't be a problem for the big man from Slovakia.

Wouldn't it be great to see Chara and Myers throw down the gloves against each other?

Sabres are a much more balanced team with better goaltending.

Sabres take it in six games. With some crazy 2-1 games and possibly a double overtime game at 1-0.

 

Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa

The defending Cup champs aren't as good as they were last year. They did not finish the stretch like they usually do. Marc-Andre Fleury usually turns his A game on around February and we have not yet seen that.

High note: Sidney Crosby added an Olympic gold medal to his resume, along with the Maurice Rocket Richard trophy, tying Steven Stamkos with 51 goals. He'll be looking to add another Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe to his collection of awards this spring.

Malkin has had a significant drop of production and has battled injuries all season.

Can the hulking Russian find his game of last year's performance?

Jordan Staal just gets better and better. He's a threat in the offensive zone and can shutdown any teams' top line.

The Senators have had an interesting season.

They have a weird hold over the Northeast Division champs, the Buffalo Sabres. They went on a 12-game win streak and 19-game home streak.

Daniel Alfredson, as always, has been the man in Ottawa and the team has improved in unity without Dany Heatley. I'm sure they miss his offense contributions, but not the distractions.

The development of Erik Karlson has to be a bright spot to the Senators season. His play down the stretch looks like he's capable of being their No. 1 defensive man.

Pascal Leclaire failed to take over the No. 1 starting job and I'm sure Ottawa is missing the play of Antoine Vermette, who has been solid in Columbus this season.

However, Brian Elliot looks to be the man in the crease for now and should be a test to see how he does in the playoffs. If he does his share, Ottawa may look to shop Pascal Leclaire at the draft.

 

I. What the Penguins Need To Do To Win

It's no doubt that Sidney Crosby will be the best player on the ice every night, and will provide a bulk of the scoring in this series for the Penguins.

The Captain is a man on a mission: To return to the finals and win the Cup, becoming the first team since the Red Wings to repeat. Crosby has improved on his shooting, scoring, and face-offs, making him that much more dangerous.

Evgeni Malkin has to be the player he was last year in the playoffs. This team isn't deep enough for him and Crosby both not contributing in the same game.

Malkin is a strong center with a big body. He needs to use that strength, even if that makes his injuries worse. He needs to sacrifice because he'll have a better summer recuperating with another Cup ring.

Jordan Staal will matchup against Spezza and Alfredson when Crosby isn't. Most likely, Ottawa will try to match Fisher with Crosby.

Staal needs to do what he does best and that's shutdown the other teams' offense, kill penalties and get that clutch goal.

Penguins need others to step up in their offense like they did last season.

Players like Kennedy, Cooke, Talbot, Ponikravosky, Guerin, and Fedotenko need to play at their best. Their defense needs to tighten up as well. Ottawa will try to keep the score down, the Penguins can't give them anything easy.

Marc-Andre Fleury needs to play like the guy who carried his team to back-to-back final appearances.

His strong play in high-pressured situations against Washington and Detroit is how he  won them a Cup. So far this season, he hasn't shown us that level of play this season.

 

II. What the Senators Need To Do To Win

Simple. Stop Sidney Crosby. Well that's easier said than done. Crosby is determined to win, despite a disappointing Olympic Games (besides the game winning goal), Crosby has always answered in high-pressured situations.

Ottawa needs to get rough on him, but clean. They can't let the Penguins get on the man advantage. Their power-play wasn't good this season, but it can surely put the Senators away.

Elliot needs to keep the score down. Ottawa hasn't been able to score many goals this year. Out of the 16 teams that made the postseason, they rank 13th in offense.

Defense needs to be tight. They need to keep the Penguins to the outside and out-work them in the corners. They have to be tough and physical.

Murray tried to build his team to resemble Brian Burke's 2007 Stanley Cup team that ousted him five games. We'll see if he found that balance.

Without Alexei Kovalev, more pressure will be on Alfredsson and Spezza. Others like Michalek, Foligno, Fisher, and Kelly will need to find ways to score and contribute, in all aspects.

The Penguins are too experienced and powerful for the Senators, but it will be an exciting series. However, the series will have Ottawa losing a disappointing game five in the dying minutes with a chance to force a game six.

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